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'Apocalypto' a distorted view of Maya history

February 7, 2007

Commentary by Mary Weismantel and Cynthia Robin

Mel Gibson's latest film, Apocalypto, tells a story set in pre-Columbian Central America, with the Mayan Empire in decline. Villagers who survived a savage attack are taken by their captors through the jungle to the central Mayan city. Among the villagers is Jaguar Paw, who has hidden his wife and child from the attackers with a promise that he will return for them. Although the film has been nominated for three Academy Awards - in makeup, sound editing and sound mixing - it has received mixed reviews from critics and scholars.

The following editorial was written by Mary Weismantel, professor of anthropology, and Cynthia Robin, associate professor of anthropology. It originally appeared Dec. 17, 2006, in the Chicago Tribune.

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The promotion for Mel Gibson's new film, “Apocalypto,” points out all of its realistic touches: It was shot on location in Mexico, it stars Native American actors and its dialogue is not in English but Yucatec Maya.

Movie reviewers, however, have noted the film's inaccuracies, though at the same time they have granted the director considerable latitude with a common plea from the movie world: It's just entertainment.

The inaccuracies have sparked protests by Native Americans - in the United States, Mexico and Guatemala - as well as by researchers who study the ancient Maya, all outraged by the film's portrayal of the Maya as violent and depraved.

True, a movie is a fictional account that, in most cases, places the drama ahead of the historical verisimilitude. But the distorted story of the Maya is likely the only exposure a generation of moviegoers will get to the ancient civilization, and the film does the Maya a disservice.

As researchers who have spent our lives studying and teaching about the Maya, we cannot help but be disappointed, and even outraged, by the movie. Consider all the violence in the movie; though the Maya practiced warfare and treated their prisoners harshly, the depiction of wall paintings of blue-painted and decapitated prisoners is just wrong.

Stereotypes of bloodthirsty savagery and moral degeneracy have been used to vilify indigenous peoples for 500 years - by every government that has sought to justify the denial of civil rights to native peoples.

During the first 200 years after the Spanish conquest of the New World - beginning in the 1500s - an estimated 75 million indigenous people were killed. But the genocide of Maya peoples is not merely a thing of the past. Some 200,000 Maya were killed in Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended only a decade ago.

These “entertaining” images affect ordinary people too. Native Americans - like African-Americans, gays and lesbians - are at constant risk of hate crimes.

The ancient Maya were a great civilization. They had important inventions and made many advances, such as in higher mathematics. They figured out the concept of zero, for instance, putting them in the same league as the Chinese and Arabs.

Gibson's film comes at an exciting time for the native peoples of the Americas. Indigenous political movements across North and South America are fighting for civil rights and cultural recognition, not unlike African-Americans in the 1960s.

These movements take pride in their ancient civilizations. But participants of white backlash movements, some of which have ties to neo-Nazis, love to talk about how those ancient civilizations were degenerate, disgusting and violent.

Gibson's film portrays the ancient Maya not only as bloodthirsty and immoral but utterly evil. Having Americans and Mexicans of native heritage play such roles and speak in a language still spoken by more than 700,000 Yucatec Maya in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize sends a dangerous message by asking them to portray their own ancestors as evil.

The U.S., Mexico and Guatemala are predominantly Christian nations but have a vibrant religious pluralism. Native Americans are predominantly Christian but find inspiration in their ancestors' traditions.

Many others seek out these traditions as well. Tourists travel to Maya sites such as Chichen Itza, read books about Maya calendric systems and even attend ceremonies led by modern-day Maya shamans. They find inspiration in great religious traditions that deserve a better representation than they receive in “Apocalypto.”

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Mary Weismantel has published two books about contemporary indigenous peoples of South America. Cynthia Robin is an archeologist of the ancient Maya.

Topics: Opinion